Monday, August 8, 2011

The Port Authority's toll hike is blatantly unfair

The big news the past few days has been the Port Authority's fare and toll hike plan. Many people are upset about it, but for me the PATH fare increase seems doable. It's higher than the NYC Transit fare, but don't worry, we'll catch up soon. The toll increase - well, I'm in favor of anything that brings the cost of driving up closer to the actual amount of resources used.

Lots of people were upset about the proposal. New York State Senator Charles Fuschillo of Merrick is against the Port Authority increases, the MTA fare hikes and the MTA payroll tax, apparently believing that nobody should ever have to pay anything for a government service. In a hilarious development, Governors Cuomo and Christie expect us to believe that they had no idea the Port Authority would propose such a steep hike. They only signed off on its capital plan, they didn't expect anyone would have to pay for it! A bit closer to reality, there were various complaints against the plan, but the Bergen Record actually found a guy who reasoned that it would discourage single-occupant driving.

Tri-State and Streetsblog pointed out that for several years people have been noticing that the Port Authority had lots of cash on hand, and saying, "Well, let's get the Port Authority to chip in on this." In this way, the few billion dollars in question has probably been spent at least five times over. And this is the answer to my question from 2009 about why governments borrow to finance capital projects: if they try to save the money ahead of time, someone will take it.

One of the reasons the Port Authority is raising fares and tolls is that Governor Cuomo expects it to contribute $380 million a year to the MTA capital plan. This makes sense in a way, because people from New Jersey commute to Manhattan by train, bus and car, and benefit from having people ride the NYC Transit subways and buses. Some people have noted that the $380 million probably wouldn't be necessary if we were bringing in $500 million a year through congestion pricing on the East River bridges and tunnels. In essence, New Jersey drivers will be paying what the drivers from Westchester, Long Island, Connecticut and the outer boroughs refused to pay.

But even Streetsblog though didn't pick up on one of the grand ironies involved in having New Jersey drivers subsidizing sprawl in Bayside and Mamaroneck. Back in March 2008, in one of the craziest episodes of the whole crazy congestion pricing debate, twenty New York City Council members signed a letter complaining that the proposed congestion charge would be deducted from any bridge and tunnel tolls paid the same day. This, they wrote, was "blatantly unfair." They even demanded exactly what Cuomo is asking from the Port Authority this year: that it contribute to the MTA capital plan. Of course it was a total lie: the proposed congestion charge would have remedied numerous unfair situations, not created one.

And now, over three years later, it looks like this will happen without congestion pricing. Now, if there's a remedy for a situation that is blatantly unfair, and you apply that remedy in a situation that isn't blatantly unfair, that would be blatantly unfair, right? And yet - I have not heard a peep from David Yassky, Jimmy Vacca, John Liu or anyone else who signed that letter. They only care about fairness when they think their constituents are the ones being treated unfairly.

But that's not all. The supreme irony in the whole situation is the source of the Port Authority's money: congestion pricing. The Port Authority can charge such high tolls because it operates a secure cordon. You can't drive from New Jersey to New York City without paying a Port Authority toll unless you drive up to the Tappan Zee Bridge or beyond.

If we charged tolls on the East River bridges we'd have plenty of money for transit projects - and reduced congestion, and well-funded buses. But none of our state legislators want to stick their necks out for it, and neither does Andrew Cuomo. They'd rather just let New Jersey pay, and take the money. Excelsior!


George K said...

The thing about the toll hikes is that, in some cases, there is just no alternative. For example, obviiously, the Lincoln Tunnel has plenty of alternatives, and the Holland Tunnel has a few, but the Goethals and Outerbridge Crossing don't have a single transit route running across them. The Bayonne Bridge has the S89, but that only runs during rush hours.

Hopefully, a private operator will be able to start a profitable transit route across those 3 spans, as people look for alternatives to paying the high toll. The problem is that, even with the high tolls there might not be enough demand to run that service at high frequencies, especially off-peak. Also, the access to places might be limited.

For example, I don't think a Staten Island route going to New Jersey would have enough demand to go past the closest rail line.

Therefore, I'm hoping the Port Authority would be willing to fund some expansions in bus service across these bridges. A private operator might find it profitable to operate to a couple of destinations (Joel Azumah plans to start up a service to Newark Airport), but some destinations would require some subsidies to operate to (for example, a Staten Island-Perth Amboy route would probably need to be subsidized)

John Hupp said...

From an outsider perspective, it does seem ridiculous how much better transit connectivity—or any sort of access, for that matter—is across the East River than across the Hudson River. Isn't that the sort of problem the Port Authority was created to fix in the first place?